Saturday, April 14, 2012

Killer Covers

While a good title can help a book, a bad title is rarely fatal. Covers, on the other hand, can kill. The best title and best content in the world will fail to attract readers if the cover is repulsive. Even a merely bland, neutral title is a murderer of a different kind. With nearly 500,000 new titles appearing every year, a book needs an outstanding, attractive and appropriate cover in order to survive.

What constitutes an “outstanding, attractive and appropriate” cover is, of course, a matter of opinion. Nothing about publication is quite so subjective as cover design. And there are fashions in covers as well as clothes. Colors come in and go out of favor. Bold replaces impressionistic – or vice versa. Victorian art yields to abstract designs or the opposite. Even the professionals will admit (if they are feeling candid or have had a glass or two) that they often fail to anticipate reader reactions to covers. Fortunes are made and lost on Madison Avenue because of the art of attracting buyers to a product (in this case a book) is not a science but an art -- and even masters can make mistakes.

I am a writer, not a graphic designer. I do not pretend to understand visual arts. So when I started publishing, I was delighted to think the publisher with an entire staff of graphic designers would develop my cover design for me. Five years later, I am sorry to report that my experience with out-sourcing cover design to “professionals” has varied from brilliant to disastrous.
 
Starting with the positive examples, Pen and Sword developed the cover of “Sisters in Arms” without any in-put from me and the cover is without doubt one of the best for any of my books:


There are also times when the professionals really do “know best” – whether we like it or not. When I published my biography of General Friedrich Olbricht in Germany, the publisher put a picture of Olbricht on the cover and chose a color scheme that avoided “brown” to stress that Olbricht was not Nazi. I liked the cover very much. When working on the English biography of Olbricht, however, I had to accept the fact that “Hitler sells” and putting a picture of a German general on the cover of the book – even if it was “coded” green rather than brown – would not sell books. With inner reluctance, I approved putting the picture of Hitler showing the bomb damage from the assassination attempt of July 20, 1944 to Mussolini on the cover. To add insult to injury, the English publisher tinted the entire cover brown.


Because the image is so familiar and distinctive, the cover immediately told the English/American audience that the book was about the plot to kill Hitler. As such it attracted readers interested in the topic. Sales of this book have been the best of all my books so far.

In light of this success and in connection with the title change for “An Obsolete Honor” in to “Hitler’s Demons,” Wheatmark developed a brilliant cover. This cover capitalizes on the “name recognition” that Hitler has, yet gives the Resistance a face since the individual photos are of Resistance figures.


Unfortunately, my experience with professional cover designs was not always so good. For my novel about the fall of Acre and the Knights Templar in the late 13th Century, my publisher submitted a cover showing a knight from the 16th century. I asked for three changes and finally had to make do with a very mediocre cover. Or another example: for the cover of my novel “The Lady in the Spitfire” the publisher submitted a cover image showing a modern, corporate jet. That just wouldn’t fly! Even after I sent images of a Spitfire and stressed how distinctive the profile is and how anyone familiar with the period would recognize it, the designs that came back were completely inappropriate for a book set in WWII. I hired an independent designer to develop a design based on my specifications with materials provided and came up with a cover I liked.



Whether this is an effective design, however, is questionable. This is my worst selling book.
 
Likewise, the covers for my recent Sparta books have been designed not by the “professionals” at publishing houses, but by independent graphic designers working on instructions from me. While they avoid the pitfalls of inappropriate designs – the first two aren’t killers -- they would probably have benefited from the extra creativity of a designer who, unlike me, thinks in terms of images.







 


The third cover is, I think the best:



But will it sell books?
So the quest continues for the perfect cover continues … and will never end.

NOTE: I will be on holiday on Kythera until the end of the month and the next entry will be posted in early May.

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